Zarathustra’s Overman, or the Suggestive Power of Metaphor By Dirk R. Johnson

In the second example, Nietzsche claims that the figure of Zarathustra comes to embody the “ideal” through his actions and comportment—above all, in his engagement with others:

And how Zarathustra descends and says the most gracious things to everybody! How gently he handles even his adversaries, the priests, and suffers with them and from them! – At every moment here, humanity has been overcome, the idea of “overman” has become the highest reality, — everything that was considered great about people lies infinitely far beneath him (EH, Za 6).

In both examples, Nietzsche suggests that the overman no longer signifies a future objective, as he did for Zarathustra at the outset, but is realized in the comportment of Zarathustra on his journey. Zarathustra himself models through his actions and bearing a higher type, which he had at first posited as ideal for everyone. The adjectival form of the noun, combined with the “human” [menschlich-übermenschlichen], indicates that its qualities refer to actions—i.e., to an inner spontaneous affirmative energy directed outward (“from an overflowing abundance and power”)—and are not bound to a fixed type. And it indicates that the being overhuman (his actual reality, not as a form of future transcendence) is realized in the doing, in the actions themselves. It expends itself, is actuated, in action, in particular, in the way Zarathustra interacts with his instinctual opposites and adversaries—even with those who would call him “inhuman.” Finally, by becoming an example of such an overman, Zarathustra has left “humanity” beneath him, both in concrete terms as well as a term to designate a common human goal.

But what has transpired? How did Zarathustra himself become “the ideal” that he promulgates and why does the overman as an ideal for everyone recede by the end of the text?

Zarathustra’s Encounter with the Eternal Return

We must here put the metaphor of the overman on ice and see what occurs in the narrative after Zarathustra announces he will seek “solitary individuals.” As indicated, Zarathustra hadn’t given up on the overman; he had only redirected his message to a new target audience. In the following two parts, Zarathustra no longer refers much to the overman, but instead sounds out individuals on his journey and declares his aversion and disgust with his age. In Part I, he gives various speeches where he rejects contemporary culture and warns his followers not to be seduced by the false ideals and values of the present. At this stage, the overman remains an undercurrent: the hidden context and signpost for a possible future overcoming of the sickening present.

But an increasingly melancholy and introspective mood grips Zarathustra in Part II (e.g., see “The Grave Song” and the “Dance Song”) and there are signs of a momentous event to come: the thought of the eternal return. In the final section of Part II, “The Stillest Hour,” a voice tells Zarathustra that he hasn’t found the courage to face his most hidden thought, and in the first major section in the following Part III, “The Vision and the Riddle,” Zarathustra delivers his first mediated experience with the eternal return: he tells seafarers on a journey, in the form of a riddle, the story of a shepherd choking with a snake stuck in his throat. On his journey until now, Nietzsche implies, Zarathustra has shied away from this ultimate awareness but he can no longer avoid a confrontation with it.

The most extensive exposition of the eternal return occurs in one of the concluding sections of Part III, “The Convalescent.” Only now is Zarathustra in the position to confront the thought.  For such a significant metaphor, perhaps more significant in the reception than the overman, Nietzsche says very little about the eternal return in concrete terms. But as I have stated about the overman, the metaphors in this text have taken on a life of their own and have rarely been analyzed in terms of their function.

What Zarathustra describes in his ultimate encounter with the thought, which he calls up from his depths, is not a fundamental cosmological principle, nor a teaching about how the world actually is, but how Zarathustra now recognizes it to be. Zarathustra is confronted with the “horrible” thought that all things recur, the greatest and the smallest, and that the greatest, too, are frightfully small. This awareness fills him with crippling disgust. When his animals seek to make a hurdy-gurdy song from this “world-defining thought,” the Eternal Return, Zarathustra retreats in silence. As a projection of his subjective state, his innermost being, the thought cannot become a metaphor for all.

Of course, the repercussion of the awareness is that the overman, as previously conceived, must fall victim to this thought. There are two reasons for this. For one, Zarathustra’s bitterness and disappointment with his age was the hidden reservoir for the thought of the overman in the first place: namely, it was his revulsion with the “good” that “gave him wings to ‘glide off into distant futures’” (EH, Destiny 5). Zarathustra’s latent disgust with life and his residual pity with man, reinforced by his self-imposed solitude on the mountaintop, engendered a visionary future ideal type that reflected the conceptual opposite of current man, the Last Man. Similar to all prophets who flee the world, Zarathustra had fashioned a counter-ideal from the hurt and bitterness he felt with this world.

But the deep animus Zarathustra harbors against his age was coaxed out of him, and he was forced to confront the realization that there could never be an escape from this world. There could be no better, higher or transcendent, only the dross of the human in all perpetuity. The overman, too, in other words, represents an escape from the horror of the all-too-human present into the comfort of a future ideal. Resentment—unacknowledged and deeply submerged at first, but now rising from psychic depths to the surface—had been the seedbed for the thought of an overman.

Secondly, and this refers back to what I said about his scientific understanding of man, there could be no “over” to the present. The recognition of the perpetual ebb and flow of the moment, with the high and low forever mixing, as expressed in Zarathustra’s words of disgust, meant that there could never be a fixed type that could transcend and hold itself. As Nietzsche wrote in scientific terms in response to Darwin: “The entire animal and plant world does not evolve from higher to lower…. Rather, everything at the same time, one on top of another, pell-mell, and in strife [übereinander und durcheinander und gegeneinander]” (KSA 13, 317).

Nietzsche suggests a new awareness. A “higher type” no longer seeks refuge in an ideal, but can affirm and embrace the eternal return of the same and accept its life, as is, for all eternity. It could immerse itself into this world, accept and master life in its complexity, and stamp its affirmation on the always-present moment. The affirmation of the eternal return without resentment becomes the hallmark of a higher type. This type,

“conceives of reality as it is: his type has the strength to do this—, it is not alienated, removed from reality, it is reality itself, it contains in itself everything terrible and questionable about reality, this is the only way someone can achieve greatness…” (EH Destiny 5).

The overman as an ideal for all mankind had been rendered superfluous. Zarathustra, incorporating the eternal return, had himself become the higher type that he had at first prophesized for all. There was no longer the overman; there was only the “human, overhuman” benevolence of Zarathustra.

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